Friday, July 14, 2006
Until I was five years old, my parents moved every year. We lived with my mother's mother for awhile; with my mother's brother and his wife another year; and then in a separate apartment in a converted old farmhouse that belonged to my mother's sister. I only remember the farmhouse because I was about four there. When I was five, we came to this odd little cape that my father's parents owned. My grandmother (his mother) died a year after we arrived. My grandfather (his father) broke his back one year later and was an invalid (nearly bedridden) for the next six years until he too died. My father inherited this property at that time. My mother died in the 1970s before she was fifty and my father married within months. I was an adult and living in NYC, so although I was affected deeply by my mother's abrupt end, I didn't realize at the time that with her would go my sense of family. My father was estranged (by his own choice) and wished to make a new start with his 'new wife and her children'. This he did. When his sister, my Aunt Nell in New Jersey, became ill in the late 1990s, he started phoning me and trying for I suppose some kind of reconciliation. Actually, looking back, he was just interested in getting news about her as they never spoke much after his remarriage. When he died this past March, I felt very little. I was surprised at the hospital that my emotions were fairly dead towards him and that I was merely doing my duty as his nearest relative by visiting him. He never asked me about my life. He never wanted or needed to know anything. Mostly, he would watch television news while I was there and comment and update me on his adopted beloved family. It was as if I'd become a sort of 'acquaintance' of this odd person and his odd relatives all of whom I felt next to nothing as I'd never met many of them. Months later, I found he'd given the house to his second wife at the time of their marriage, thirty years ago. The lawyer I spoke with told me I actually had no rights whatever now or claim on anything in the house.
This last slap in the face from my male parent reverberated with much soul searching on my part. I tried remembering some nice things. There were many concerning my mother or her family or my father's sister, but virtually nothing resounded that involved my father. From the moment I first can recall, we were strangers living under the same roof always. The only time he touched me was to smack me in the back of the head or grab my neck from behind and shove me in a direction. The only parent I could please in the least was my mother when she was lucid. She started drinking when he started. She lived like a Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams character--faded beauty recalling what could have been. She watched old movies and read True Story and Confessions magazines. She lost herself in Confidential and identified with the likes of Rita Hayworth and Jean Harlow. How sad she was. I was her audience. She was the consumate actress. He was determined at one point when I was about eight to 'make me into a man' and undo the 'sissy' things put into my head by my mother. He taught me how to shoot which I did well. He seemed surprised. He took me hunting against my natural tendencies (I loved animals) and I proceeded to scream "I've been shot!" with the first bullet which ricocheted off a rock sending shards of sand into the air at me. He took me fishing and complained I talked too much and scared the fish away. He gave up on the sports as I was extremely uncoordinated. In school I was always the last boy picked for a team along with the fat boy. Actually, they took the fat boy before me. I went through school unseen, like an apparition. I don't think many fellow students remember me even being there. The only thing I excelled at were my grades and my attempts at drawing and art. I could draw or paint all day, no problem, from the time I first remember. I got some praise and some interest, I might say, from both teachers and strangers, but from my father, nothing. I bored him to death and vice versa. By the time I was nine or ten, his drinking had become unbearable. He lost jobs, mortgaged the house to the nines, smashed our car, alienated his friends. He even had the phone disconnected after my grandmother died in 1956, so there was little contact from the outside world. Looking back, I assume it was so he could drink and not be pestered by bill collectors or anyone asking questions. He was a truck driver for years and his route was Boston to Florida. My mother was always ill. She had eleven miscarriages after my birth and what they termed then 'women's problems' , a premature histerectomy, gall bladder, heart valve, you name it. My mother was a doctor's delight. During the times she would be hospitalized or recuperating, I was bundled off the an aunt or uncle or my mother's mother until they could cope again. By 1963, we were on welfare and his sister was paying the mortgage payments just to keep a roof over our heads. He didn't work again as I recall until 1965 when both he and my mother were taken physically out of the house by the police and put in Medfield State Hospital for drying out. I was sent off to the aunts or uncles where I experienced probably the only stable atmosphere I ever knew. I also became unusually close to cousins who became more like brothers and sisters. I lived for a year with my uncle and aunt and adjusted well when my father came looking for me to come back home. I didn't want to go back. That house felt like a funeral home with a bar. I wasn't interested. We sat looking in opposite directions over my Aunt Gloria's kitchen table while he informed me that he could 'make me come home' according to the law. He finally told my aunt that it was because he couldn't live alone and my mother was still in Medfield. I begrudgingly went back. My dreams were all wound around escape themes. My favorite movies were films like 'Marnie' where the character took on different identities and escaped to different cities never connecting with anyone. I fantisized for years until I was about fifteen or so about how I would leave and where I would go and what name I would pick for myself. In my daydreams I'd divorce my parents legally. I fantasized many father figures over the years--movie stars, teachers, counsellors, older boys. They were usually handsome and heroic. The dreams were all 'rescue' dreams where they'd say, "Oh, I'll take you away from all of this." It was entirely about never seeing the two nitwits who called themselves my parents. I'd just dissappear, like in a Hitchcock film, and they'd have to stop searching. I went to college eventually, and lived there summers so as not to have to be with my parents. I wanted desparately to forget who I was and who they were. I wanted to erase all. I told strangers I worked with that my parents were dead. I rewrote my history many times.
Fast forward forty years later. I'm shredding some photos of my father--my final purge. I realize as I'm discarding evidence of his existence that no matter what I do this returning visage of him like Hamlet's father keep coming back lately in memory. It's still a vague outline, but it is him. I recall that book title, I Never Knew My Father, and think I never knew my father and there was nothing there anyway. He was like a bad date. You might forget the face, but you never forget the squirming and discomfort felt while in their company. The only family photos I have on display are three--one of my Aunt Nell, one of my father's brother John who died during the war, and one of the only grandfather I knew. My aunt is still there because she epitomized for me survival and strength in adversity. My Uncle John, whom I never knew, is there because he is all fantasy, dreams unfulfilled and lost youth; he represents for me all the things his brother was not. My grandfather is there because he showed me unconditional love.
If you wander my home town and mention my father to his acquaintences, many of them think kindly of him. His adopted second family idolized him, I'm told. If you ask my cousins and close neighbors of that time, they won't say very much. Most will look down at their feet or like our neighbor Jeanette at his funeral say to me, "What were they all about anyway? I could never figure those two out. They could've had everything and they chose nothing." It has taken me a long time to get it into my head that they were about very little. They were two rather average undereducated stiffs lost in the world clinging to anything that floated by which was most often a liquor bottle. They were never about now, they were always looking backwards. They weren't interested in very much. My father read the Record American daily and the comics and watched all sports games on TV. My mother hid from her marriage at her mother's or her sisters' houses (of whom there were many) and couldn't cope. They never left their hometown, even though in the end it imprisoned them both like a tomb. My mother left the garden to go wild and my father ordered me to mow the lawn with threats laced with beer and whisky while the roof leaked in my bedroom and went unrepaired for years. On my last visit there, I noticed his new wife made it a very tidy mausoleum. It still smelled of death to me.
There are spots on this planet, I believe, where nothing good grows. Perhaps some Indian massacre happened near there, or some horror centuries ago. Who is there to remember? All I know is, I escaped, but nobody ever escapes intact. You bear the scars of your experience. You lick the wounds and some heal and some reopen and fester. The nightmares are fewer but still recur. You are changed. You limp into the future and if you are lucky, hardly ever look backward more than you have to. You take extraordinary joy in small things like your cooking or your pet or a sunny day. You cherish your friends and make them your family. You book the next flight to the Northwest and sit in a huge primevil forest and get lost for awhile. You reinvent yourself a thousand times. You paint, write, or read and lose a few moments of anguish in something other than your navel. You thank the universe for some small rest spots, some brief plateaus of peace. You no longer mind the rain.
Posted by Peter Petraitis at 6:11 PM